One of the underlying factors that opened my eyes to the link between legalism and narcissism was the constant attempt to change the way we felt. It seemed important for our emotions to be controlled. We learned about conquering anger. Sensual desire was always evil. Almost any kind of desire was to be rejected. Any desire for change was seen as motivated by sin.
So, we were often told, “Don’t feel that way.” If something happened and we were sad, we were somehow wrong to feel sadness. If something happened to make us angry, we were wrong to feel anger. We were supposed to feel according to an approved formula or we were rejected.
Why is this manipulation of feelings so important in legalism? There may be several reasons.
- Legalism rejects differences. Any system is based on conformity. Formulas and mathematics are the core of systematic thinking. Legalism teaches a cause and effect theology. If you do this, you will get this. If you do that, you will get that. If each individual has his or her own thoughts and feelings, the system doesn’t work. So we were taught to think of groups, rather than individuals. Spiritual gifts were limited in number and people were lumped into groups. There were prophets who responded to situations a certain way and exhorters who responded differently. There were several groups, but no individuals. No differences that could not be fit into the system.
- Legalism requires control. For the system to work, each part must do its job and not cause problems. Free or uncontrolled thinking is dangerous. Legalism must put boundaries and fences around thinking and feeling. If two or twenty people respond to some situation in different ways, the system can be adjusted and defined to account for the differences and control them. But if hundreds or thousands or millions respond differently, the system would be impossible to implement.
- Legalism rejects the person. Perhaps the strongest link between legalism and narcissism is depersonalization. You and I don’t really matter in the legalist system. We are part of the number, part of the group, but not much more. The system is what is important, not you and me. Because the person is rejected, all kinds of cruelty can be inflicted. In the name of the system, people have been rejected and abused.
- Legalism rewires the mind. In order to welcome all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, the legalist system must change the thinking and feeling of a person. There is no order in the variety of perspectives found around the world. There is one way to worship, one way to dress, one way to talk—the right way. Anything outside of that way has to be eliminated and replaced with better thinking. Feelings come out of thinking and must conform as well.
So your feelings must conform or you will be rejected. “Don’t feel that way. Feel this way.” Never mind what is happening in your own heart.
But the effect of this manipulation and control, the effect of legalism, was the loss of self.